‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 4 of 4)

(Back to Part 3)

It is precisely because divine apatheia is not a possession subject to loss or diminution that God does not penuriously guard his life, but opens himself to creation and suffers with it. No one can change God or force God to act, no one can conjure or coerce God’s presence or action-God is never passive. But where God is open in love, he does not stand passively aloof, impervious to the plight of his beloved. God’s unchangeable infinitude is not at risk where God aches with longing and is pained by the dissolute state of creation-this too is an expression of the boundless variation within the unchanging generosity of God’s triune life. Thinking in this way helps us to express both God’s suffering and God’s apatheia in properly analogical terms. Hart correctly insists that “God is incapable of experiencing shifting emotions within himself” (as if manipulative ploys had any foothold), but to this similitudo, we must insist upon a maior dissimilitudo and say that God is not devoid of emotional intensity or insensitive with regard to his beloved creation (355). Likewise, if we are to speak of God’s aching solidarity with those who suffer, a solidarity that transgresses every boundary we can imagine (Hades itself), we must also insist that according to a maior dissimilitudo, God’s suffering does not incapacitate and diminish him (as suffering does to us). God never says, “It would have been better if…” with regard to God’s own boundless life; God’s life always is better in the mutual exchange and enrichment of the divine economy. 

Hart’s positive understanding of divine infinitude is sufficiently capacious to incorporate theological attentiveness to the whole of Scripture’s narrative with regard to God’s immutability and impassibility, including a nuanced account of the emotional intensity and pain ascribed to God’s experience therein. Unfortunately, Hart allows his metaphysical predilection for a more univocal understanding of divine apatheia to eclipse this conceptual openness and thereby falsely constrains his understanding of God and in docetic fashion meticulously evacuates the cross of the divinity hung thereupon. Despite himself, Hart helps us understand how Bonhoeffer is, in my estimation, finally correct: “Only the suffering God can help.” 



5 Replies to “‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 4 of 4)”

  1. The suffering God does help us, but only because the God who is immutable has become incarnate in history!

    Fr. Robert

  2. Welcome Robert,

    Thanks for reading (and summarizing) the posts. It seems to me that we need to be talk about what we mean when we use words like “immutable.” They’re not wrong, but their “naive” connotations are not always what we are trying to get across. Following Moltmann, I think that the tradition has always (unfortunately) sat a little uncomfortably toward the suffering of the cross (which after all, is the focal point and culmination of a myriad other “minor” sufferings and vulnerabilities). Fortunately, God’s sovereign wisdom kept the Church from totally excluding talk of divine pathos through its (culturally-bound) creeds and confessions.

    BTW, if I could rishagnl, I would too!

  3. Though in discussing God’s relationship to his creation, E. Orthodoxy uses the concept of a distinction between God’s eternal essence which is totally transendent and his uncreated energies which is how he reaches us. And though it is perhaps necessary to understand that this is an antifical distinction, and not a real one. The God who is transcendent and the God who touches us are one and the same.

    Human beings will always be bound and in need of “culturally-bound” creeds and confessions! Even scripture is also a “tradition”! (Acts 2:42)

    Fr. Robert

  4. Fr. Robert,

    Yes of course! There is “no exit” for human beings from culturally-bound creeds, confessions, traditions and the like (Jeremiah 36:32 is another great example of the tradition-ed shape of Scripture). But what I meant by my last statement is that, even though we are bound to the creeds and confessions of the ecumenical councils insofar as we wish to remain catholic in our Christianity, we are not necessarily bound to all the cultural presuppositions through which those creeds arose. Similarly, we are “bound” by the words of Scripture, but it is God’s Word, La Palabra de Dios, Wort Gottes, etc. no matter what language we read it in—we are not bound to replicate in our lives the culture in which the Scripture was written (as with Islam).

    What I think that Hart has done (but failed to realize it), is describe the “eternal essence” in such a way that it can genuinely receive the “messier” predications of Scripture toward God’s “uncreated energies”—like apparent instances of suffering or emotion. This would get beyond some of the cultural presuppositions operant in the (Greek-inclined) minds of the authors of our creeds—that every change, every “affection”, and every pathos is an indication of weakness or deficiency. If God’s life is best described in terms of tireless creative modulations on the theme of love, an excess that is never exhausted but always poured out in new ways, then there is room to speak of “change” that is still bound within God’s unceasing faithfulness and is not imposed upon God from outside.

    Luther and Calvin both made similar distinctions to the one you suggest, but any time these distinctions become anything more than “artificial,” the real God is hidden behind the mask of God’s revelation—and theological horrors like double-predestination result.

    Thanks for returning and picking up the thread!


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